WASHINGTON, Dec. 16, 2015 - The rise in popularity of whole grains in cereal, bread and other bakery products is triggering a rebirth of the venerable practice of milling your own wheat and as well as prompting changes throughout the national wheat and flour milling sector.

Despite declining U.S. wheat production and exports, national milling of wheat flour is soaring: at a record 425 million hundredweight (cwt.) in 2014, it’s up by more than a third in five years.

Also, in USDA’s new tally of whole-wheat flour at commercial milling sites, started just a year ago, production jumped 6 percent, to nearly 6 million cwt., in the third quarter versus the same period in 2014.

The past decade’s consumer migration to gluten-free diets, which avoid wheat, barley and oats for health reasons, might be expected to have crimped wheat flour consumption. Rather, it has mostly prodded folks to switch to rice, corn, ancient grains and other whole grains. One result has been a rising popularity of small mills for farm, home and other local use to make flour, including wheat flour.

What’s more, Tim O’Connor, president of the Wheat Foods Council, says he has watched the brisk abandonment of gluten develop and peak. Now, he says, it “is on its way out” except for “the few individuals who have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.”

And though industry lacks measures of the mounting production of whole-grain flours, Sharon Davis, dietary expert for the Home Baking Association (HBA), says food shopper surveys do paint a picture of what’s happening. From nationwide surveys in 2010 and 2015, the Whole Grains Council reports that 64 percent of American consumers say they’ve increased whole grain consumption “some” or “a lot” since 2010; in the same five years, those saying they nearly always opt for whole grain products has jumped from 4 percent to 31 percent.

Meanwhile, at the production end, robust expansion in wheat milling is evident across the milling industry and among those who make grain mills. The iconic North Dakota Mill, for example, has produced spring wheat and durum flours plus semolina for pasta for nearly a century. Its output rises steadily, and sales of its pancake mixes and “Dakota Maid,” its supermarket brand bread flour, are climbing, too. The state-owned company is milling about 38,000 cwt. of flour daily, and will finish an expansion in 2016 to increase capacity by 30 percent to handle growing demand. “All of the wheat we buy is used for our flour milling,” said Ryan Svoboda, NDM sales representative.

The last two years has seen a sprint by big flour millers merging to gain strength and flexibility to compete in a changing flour market. Omaha-based ConAgra Foods and Minnesota-based Cargill and CHS created a joint nationwide company, Ardent Mills, to run 40 mills, three bakery mix facilities and a specialty bakery. “Ardent Mills is ushering in a great new era for grain with the industry’s most extensive selection of flours, mixes, blends and specialty products . . . no matter what the application or need,” the company declares on its website.

In a similar move, three successful regional millers – Cereal Food Processors, Milner Milling and Pendleton Flour Mills – merged this year to form Grain Craft, offering an array of milled wheat products coast to coast. The company now mills just wheat, but Rachel Warner, GC’s director of national accounts, says, “We are constantly looking at the product landscape in the grain food industry and what opportunities are available” for expanded offerings.

Meanwhile, Davis at the Home Baking Association says the number of members, nearly half of whom make or market flour, has remained steady despite the big mergers, in part because small and regional millers remain successful, too. Their tendency to have “clean labels” strengthens their product appeal, she says, referring to labels listing no additives that can add clutter and turn fussy shoppers away.

In addition, she says, the growing of hard white winter wheat for making flour has been a shot in the arm for home kitchen, artisan and other whole-wheat bread making. “It’s a really nice product to bake with at home or commercially,” producing Americans’ highly preferred white bread while retaining crucial nutrients in the bran and germ, she says.

In perspective, hard white wheat production remains a pittance of U.S. wheat, less than 1 percent of the crop, though it climbed to 16 million bushels this year, up by a fourth since 2011. One small grower cooperative, Shepherd’s Grain, in the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia Plateau, grows hard white for California-based Stone Buhr Flour Co., and another co-op does likewise for its own Farmer Direct Foods in Kansas.

Because this high-gluten wheat is becoming prized by so many bread bakers, Davis says, “Now, all over the country we have farmers growing hard white wheat.”

On the West Coast, meanwhile, Janice Cooper, executive director of the Wheat Marketing Center in Portland, Oregon, and recently of the California Wheat Commission, describes the arrival of successful selective wheat breeding and local stone milling of wheat and corn to deliver flour and polenta to upper-end urban restaurants and the public: Grist and Toll in Los Angeles, for example, and Community Grains, which supplies the famed Oliveto Restaurant and others in the Oakland area.

 Such California ventures to make flour fresh with the perishable germ intact is “not so much a shelf-life issue as it is bakers who like to use freshly milled flour,” Cooper says.

 Another factor speeding the trend toward home-kitchen and other local milling is the increased availability and affordability of both whole grains and beans in retail stores and online, combined with an array of small mills on the market for home use.

L’Chef, for example, is the leading U.S. maker of small, high-speed grain mills with its Nutrimill models that deliver around 50 pounds of flour per hour. They fill orders for a lot of flour in a hurry in big home kitchens and even small bakeries. But today’s whole-grains advocates want slower, more flexible mills that can turn out a few cups of either fine or coarse flour or meal, explains Phillip Craven, L’Chef market director.

So, after 40 years of high-speed units exclusively, Nutrimill introduced its Harvest Grain Mill into a growing array of little stone mills on the market. “The smaller capacity and convenient nature of the Harvest Mill gives it much broader appeal, so we definitely anticipate big box retailers carrying them in the near future,” Craven says.

“This whole farm-to-table movement is benefitting the grain mill business,” says L’Chef President Gary Leavitt. Increasingly, outlets such as local food cooperatives, Whole Foods, and even CostCo, sell selections of whole grain in bags or bins. Leavitt says home cooks, rather than paying $6 a pound for retail rice flour, can buy a 50-pound sack of rice for, say, $13 to $20, depending on market channel, shrinking the cost of rice flour to 25 cents to 40 cents a pound.


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